Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Trigger-happy Parents Advisory Council (UPDATED)

"Engagement Marketing" ad Parents Advisory Council
sent to our PTO [see "UPDATE" below]
Monday night the chair of Metro Schools' Parents Advisory Council, which tends to be the only parents group the school district listens to (at least that was the message I got early on from PTO meetings at my daughter's school), sent out the following email promoting the pro-charter, "parent trigger" film, "Won't Back Down":

Good evening families of Metro Schools.  The Parents Advisory Council has been asked to partner with the Tennessee Charter Schools Association and Students First for the following movie premiere at Opry Mills Movie Theatre on Monday, September 24, 2012 at 6 pm.  We will begin promptly at 6 pm with remarks by the Honorable Mayor Karl Dean, followed by the movie and a panel discussion to follow.

I look forward to seeing you there. Please register in advance to reserve your seats.

Erica W. Lanier
Parents Advisory Council Chair 2010-2013
Parents Advisory Council’s Leadership Taskforce (PLT)
“Your voice matters. Make it heard.”

Ms. Lanier was also one of three losing candidates for the District 5 school board seat election just passed.

What primarily raised my hackles about this email, which was received by our PTO membership, was the partnering of the parents' advocacy and advisement group with Students First led by controversial and conservative Education Reformer Michelle Rhee and with the primary lobbying group for charter schools to red-state Tennessee, TCSA. There were no other groups that PAC partnered with, no other films representing alternative points of view. This event is being staged and marketed by charter school advocates and our advisory council seems to be jettisoning its independence and evenhandedness to enable what amounts to some of us as propaganda*, especially when branded as truth.

So, yesterday I penned a letter to Ms. Lanier and copied it to my PTO leader, my daughter's principal, my school board member, my council member, and a local reporter covering the charter debate. PAC may be going into this event merrily, if not naively, but I at least want to offer a dissenting view in case they assume everyone is on board with them:

Ms. Lanier:

Some parents do not support the privatization of our public education through charter schools and the shifting of resources away from public schools to education corporations, which are free to select a few Metro students and reject many others. Some of us are concerned about the private wealth and political influence being pumped into the "parent trigger" movement by pro-charter groups and politicians.

Why is our advisory council, which is supposed to represent all voices of public school parents, seeming to take sides in this debate by co-sponsoring a pro-charter film (which is not a factual story, by the way) with a charter lobbyist/advocacy group? Shouldn't the Parents Advisory Council be striving to bring more balance to this event by suggesting alternative viewpoints or contrasting films more critical of what appears to be a headlong rush to charters?

If the Parents Advisory Council is interested in balance and fairness, I would recommend that they consider this film from the Grassroots Education Movement for screening, too: By all means, advance the debate on education, but please make sure that the debate remains diverse and inclusive of all voices.

The PAC Chair replied last night with a tersely written email. What she did not say in it is just as important as what she did say. She replied with no examples of how our advisory committee had attempted to provide perspectives on transforming education at odds with the business models of the charter industry. In my opinion, the strongest response to my criticism is to list the ways that PAC remains a balanced group that shines a spotlight on all perspectives in a debate. She also failed to acknowledge the legitimacy of parents like me who have another view of charter schools. PAC's willingness to partner with the other sides of this debate would earn my appreciation.

Ms. Lanier did insist that PAC was not siding with anyone in the debate, even though her group forwarded the sales campaign materials to the PTO (even the ad website has the word "campaign" in the URL). She also argued that the movie is "loosely based" on "Parent Revolution" which she called a "real and active parent group". What she did not acknowledge in her letter to me is that Parent Revolution was started by a charter school operator, operates with a million dollar budget, and takes donations from pro-charter venture philanthropists with the Bill Gates Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation. It is not a bunch of PTO moms who got together and organized out of their own frustrations.

She also did not give many any details on how PR work (seems a strikingly appropriate abbreviation) in California led to successful triggers that inspired the movie. Fact is, there have been no successful triggers that could have inspired "Won't Back Down". The movie is a fiction. In fact, it was intended to be a fiction, according to one of its writers.

The idea of a trigger sounds good to frustrated and angry parents, who desperately seek solutions but who often are not aware of the ulterior political agendas they end up supporting by embracing the trigger. The reality tends to prove to be emptier and more regressive than anticipated.

Finally, Ms. Lanier maintained that dissenting views like mine would be accommodated during the panel discussion time. It is not clear to me that dissenting views would even be sitting on the panel. So, why should I hope to have my views acknowledged during that discussion? I could not even have them acknowledged after contacting my PAC leader.


     *One of the pioneers of "parent trigger" lobbying is the American Legislative Exchange Council, which holds closed-door pow-wows with conservative legislators to craft extreme bills with the least resistance.

UPDATE: The Vice Chair of the Parents Advisory Council comments below that the invitation to the "Won't Back Down" event was never planned or authorized by PAC or the Leadership Taskforce. I attended tonight's PAC meeting. While the subject did not come up in the district meeting, an MNPS administrator told me that they would not authorize such an invitation either.

Looks like a rogue invitation to the parent trigger event, which gives the event even less credibility in my book.

UPDATE: I took a screenshot of the advertisement for the Nashville showing of Won't Back Down, which was somewhat different than the ad for both Memphis and Nashville showings (inset screenshot above). The Nashville ad was attached to the email originally sent from Ms. Lanier and forwarded to our PTO group. There is no mistaking that the ad states that the Parents Advisory Council's Leadership Taskforce "is partnering" with the Tennessee Charter Schools Association and with Students First "to host an exclusive preview" of Won't Back Down:

PAC leaders have separated themselves from claims of the partnership. I'm updating this because it seems pretty clear to me that Ms. Lanier's email included some professional advertising work by people who intended to suggest to us that the Parents Advisory Council endorsed their campaign without the permission of PAC. I'm wondering whether anyone at PAC will investigate how this happened.


  1. The views and promotional email by Ms Lanier were not endorsed, approved, or even discused by PAC as a body or by the existing PAC leadership team. I personally did not receive the email in question, so I am unsure how widely it was distributed. We are having the first PAC meeting tonight at 6pm at the Martin Center. All parents and guardians are welcome to attend and participate.
    Michael Hasty
    Vice-Chair of MNPS Director's PAC 2012-13

  2. The original email from Erica Lanier appears to be sent to herself & blind copied, so there is no way to tell who and how many received it. However, the fact that it addresses "families of Metro Schools" suggests to me that it was a global, comprehensive email blast. According to the thread, someone named "M K" forwarded it to the Jones Paideia PTO gmail account. The person in charge of that account appears to have forwarded it to around 200 people (I assume they are all members of the Jones mailing list). I was one of the approximately 200 at the end of the thread.

  3. As a former PAC officer, and many years involved with the PAC before it became the Director's PAC, we do not take on such positions. PAC is the representative body for all parents and interests. We are an objective voice. We welcome all parents and community stakeholders to attend and participate.

    Tanaka Vercher
    Former PAC Secretary 2011-2012

  4. Looks like the real sponsor of this is the Parents Leadership Taskforce (PLT) that was formed last year as a subcommittee of the Parent Advisory Committee. I do not believe that Ms. Lanier personally supports the movie but is willing to have the Taskforce be a co-sponsor.

  5. I'm a reporter with NewsChannel 5. Can you please call me at 248-5281? Thanks, Aundrea Cline-Thomas

  6. Again, let me be clear.
    This movie and the showing at Opry Mills was not discussed by the PAC (which has not met this year) or the PLT, which is a subcommittee of the PAC (which has also not met this year). The email communication from Ms Lanier was sent without the consent of the PAC or the PAC leadership.

    I welcome all MNPS parents to join us tonight at the first PAC meeting at the Martin Center (next to Eakin Elementary) at 6pm.

    Michael Hasty
    MNPS parent
    Vice-Chair of MNPS Director's PAC 2012-13

  7. PLT Member

    It is my understanding that Mr. Hasty was just elected in June of this year. Pac does not meet during the summer.Hasty is not a member of the PLT. Therefore, he cannot speak for us.


  8. Parent Revolution a "real and active parent group"????!!!! The same Parent Revolution founded by disbarred lawyer Ben Austin???????

    hahahahahahahahahahahaha!!!! What's that about a sucker born every minute?

    Maybe Ben's the reason a real and active parent group Parents Across America, calls his law the 'Parent Tricker Law.'